Goodness Gracious – She’s a Ball of Fire!

I learned to love all of Hollywood money
You came along and you moved me honey
I changed my mind, looking fine
Goodness gracious great balls of fire – Jerry Lee Lewis


Betty Rowland, the Red-headed Ball of Fire (aka the Rhode Island red-head) was a force to be reckoned with during the heyday of burlesque.  She had a stage presence that belied her diminutive stature and she was the highest paid dancer in her field.


Betty was only in her teens when she began dancing professionally at Minsky’s in New York. Burlesque houses thrived in NYC during the early 1930s, but by 1935 citizens groups were trying to close them, and Mayor LaGuardia had deemed burlesque a “corrupting moral influence”.  The city’s licensing commission tried pull Minksy’s license, but the State Court of Appeals refused to do so without a criminal conviction.  In 1937 the mayor and the citizen’s groups finally got the break they’d been waiting for when a stripper at Minsky’s was discovered to be working without her G-string. That was enough for criminal charges to be filed, and Abe Minsky’s license was revoked.  Minsky’s was the first domino to fall.  New licensing regulations would allow the burlesque houses to remain in business, as long as they didn’t employ strippers! 


The death of burlesque in New York was probably one of the reasons why, in May of 1938, Betty and her troupe opened in Los Angeles at the Follies Theater on Main Street. It was supposed to be a limited engagement, but L.A. audiences loved Betty and she would continue to perform at the Follies for most of her long and successful career.


In August of this year I was fortunate enough to meet Miss Rowland – she was special guest on Esotouric’s “Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice” tour. She was absolutely delightful! Vivacious, and still sporting her famously red hair, I found her to be a very classy dame indeed.


There are so many great stories about Betty that it was tough for me to keep my questions to a minimum. But the one tale that I was most curious about was her arrest in 1952 for giving a lewd performance.  It struck me as strange that after working in Los Angeles for about 15 years (with only one misdemeanor arrest in 1939) her act was suddenly considered to be lewd.  I knew there had to be more to the story, and there was.


Betty said that one night two LAPD cops arrived at the Follies expecting to get a free pass, but theater manager Maurice Rosen was firm – no freebies.  In retaliation, cops hauled Betty and Rosen off to the Lincoln Heights jail!


On November 14, 1952, Maurice and Betty would each be sentenced to four months in the slammer; however, a few weeks later the Los Angeles Times reported that Judge Walters had modified Betty’s sentence – in part because her attorney had said that Betty was quitting show business to open a perfume store in Beverly Hills with her sister Rose Zelle.


Of his decision to release Betty, Walters said: “The value of incarceration seems to have made its effective marks.”  Jail had undoubtedly made an impression on Betty; she said that it was a horrible experience.  The true story of Betty’s premature release from jail never made it into the newspapers. From what Betty said, it had been strongly “suggested” to her that if she paid a fine something might be done about reducing her sentence.  According to Betty it was a substantial amount of cash placed in the right hands (and not the Judge’s soft heart) that resulted in her release from City Jail.


If you’d like to see Betty in action, you can view a video clip of one of her performances on YouTube.  You are in for a treat.

Bad Man on Crocker Street

Officer Gifford, on night patrol on Crocker street, heard a call for help and saw three men chasing another man down the block away from him. As he set off after them, Gifford saw the man in the lead leap up the steps at the entrance to the emergency hospital, just as the foremost of his pursuers tripped and fell on the sidewalk, sending his pistol skidding across the cement. At this, the one who had been being chased ran back down the steps, snatched up the gun and pointed it at the prone man.

By the time Gifford reached the entrance to the hospital, the other two pursuers had run off, but the man who had tripped was still there, held at gunpoint. Both men started shouting at Gifford to arrest the other, so he did the only sensible thing and arrested both of them.

The man who had been being chased was S Mahoney, a railroad engineer employed by the Santa Fe, who lived at 415 Crocker street. The man who had tripped was H A Smith, who turned out to have been a special police officer until he had been dismissed for certain unspecified irregularities. Despite the fact that he had since taken up work as a deputy constable, the police and detective agencies regarded him as “a bad man”. Indeed, a few days previously, he’d been involved in an abortive bit of gunplay involving a detective whom he’d met in a saloon. After threatening him “with all manner of evil”, Smith had gone for his gun, but the detective had been quicker on the draw and Smith had found himself being escorted out of the saloon at the barrel of a Colt, which would make Mahoney the second man in a matter of days to be on the point of shooting Smith.

Mahoney told the police that, after catching a show at the theater, he’d gone to a saloon on Fifth street, where he’d met Smith and his two companions, with whom he’d shared a few drinks. When he was on his way home, he realised that his former drinking buddies were following him and increased his speed, at which the three men did likewise. As he drew near to the building where he lived, Mahoney heard Smith shout, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” which he took as his signal to start running and crying for help. The police released Mahoney. Smith was taken to the cells and the two men who’d fled — known associates of Smith’s called Charles Burrell and William Jasper — were arrested the next day.

At the trial in police court, which took place a month later, Smith finally got a chance to tell his side of the story. He explained that, while having those drinks with Mahoney, he had formed the view that Mahoney was a suspicious character deserving of further investigation. In particular, Smith explained, he had doubted Mahoney’s word when he said that he lived on Crocker street, and had decided to follow him when he left the saloon in order to verify the truth of the statement. However, owing to the investigators’ consumption of alcohol, their surveillance technique might not have been as covert as it might otherwise have been and they evidently alarmed Mahoney, who thereafter misinterpreted their calls for him to stop so they could explain their presence as calls for him to stop so they could rob him. Misunderstanding had piled on misunderstanding, according to Smith, resulting in the regrettable situation in which a terrified Mahoney had ended up holding a gun on a slightly inebriated but otherwise diligent deputy constable lying stretched out on the sidewalk outside the emergency hospital.

Faced with two conflicting accounts, which overlapped only to the degree that each party agreed that the other parties had been drunk, the police justice dismissed the charges. The question of whether Smith was a bad man or merely a bad law enforcer remains unanswered.

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, Nov 19, Nov 20 and Dec 13 1906; Photograph of the emergency hospital from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

Death before dishonor

Although Japanese, and as such always an outsider to the Anglo culture of SRO land, G. Kurokaua was a respected longtime employee of the Ramona Saloon at 307 South Spring Street. But for all his years in the bar, he failed to tune his ear to the friendly jibes and japes that were the habit of the place. Already crabby with an undiagnosed stomach ailment that pained him, the gentleman took grave offense when a patron, perhaps aware of Kurokaua’s remarkable thrift, joked that he had doubled his salary by raiding the till. Mortified, Kurokaua went to his employer, who laughed the remark off as the joke it was. But Kurokaua brooded. If his customers believed he was dishonorable, what was the point in living? His Japanese friends tried to appease him, it was just a case of an American being American, nothing worth taking to heart. It was no use. Several days after the slight, Kurokaua went to his rooms at 215 Boyd Street, readied his tanto knife with cloth around the outer side, plunged the blade into his belly and managed a cut of nearly a foot in length before losing consciousness. He then fell back upon his bed to die, a traditional Samurai honor suicide, harakiri, in downtown Los Angeles.

The Abduction of Baby Toto

“Toto”, the two-year-old daughter of Mary Smith, a single mother who had a room in the home of the Harver family at 634 Gallardo street, went missing one spring day in 1906. Mary’s neighbors, who rushed to the house to comfort her,  soon confirmed that each had seen the same distinctive beggar woman drifting down the street earlier — a “strange creature” who “several times … remarked that she had no means of earning a livelihood.”

From the women’s description, the police identified the beggar as Lizzie McGuire, who was well known to them, and not only because she had survived being shot some years ago by her boyfriend, Paddy Walsh, who was now serving a sentence in San Quentin. They suspected that she had taken the little girl either to hold her for a reward or to carry along with her on one of her periodical begging tours of the country. The latter possibility was bolstered when they discovered that Lizzie had fled her quarters in a rooming house on East Second street the day before.

While police departments across southern California were contacted with details of the case and photographs and descriptions were sent out of Toto and Lizzie, a detective called Roberds doggedly searched second-class lodging houses downtown, following a sighting of the woman on the corner of Fifth and San Pedro.

Five days after the abduction, during which time Lizzie had dragged the child around various run-down establishments in an attempt to evade capture, Detective Roberds tracked her down in a dingy room in 644 San Julian street.

Lizzie, who “sullenly refused to say anything to detectives when her lair was discovered”, was arrested. However, as the police had known all along, she would never be prosecuted. She had survived her boyfriend’s attempt to kill her all those years ago, but she hadn’t exactly come through unscathed — the shot that he’d fired had hit her in the head, leaving her not only with a bullet scar on her forehead that made her detection by the police far easier than it would otherwise have been, but also with a brain that didn’t quite work as well as it used to. The prosecution was over before it began: Lizzie was deranged, and therefore mentally unfit to stand trial.

And Toto? She was returned to her tearful mother, apparently physically unharmed, although she appeared wan and was “sadly in need of a bath”.

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, April 20 and 21, 1906.

Crib District Gets a Makeover

They weren’t pretty but they sure were cheap, and easy to find. All an Angeleno had to do to ease his itch before the turn of the century in LA (or maybe pick up another one) was head downtown to Alameda and Ferguson Alley to an area known as the Cribs.  There, in the tenderloin, you’d find a rookery of one-story shacks divided into even smaller compartments, called cribs, which were rented to “fallen women” of all nationalities for $1.50 to $3.00 a night.

At least that was the case until February 1st, 1902, when the Cribs underwent a sudden transformation.  At dawn carpenters and sign painters invaded the district, and by the end of the day the Cribs were reinvented as “cigar stores” and “dressmakers,” where the likes of “Frankie” and “Louise” and “Georgie” would sell “Gents Neckwear” and do “Corset Stitching,” “Feather Curling,” and “Fancy Work.”

The ploy, designed to skirt the most recent in a series of crackdowns on vice in the crib quarter, didn’t hold up for long.  On February 5th, police raided Cribtown and arrested 17 women for vagrancy.  The patrol car only had room for 13 prisoners, so the remaining four were led on foot to the police station, followed by a crowd of saloon bums and macquereaux (pimps, or macks).

Chaos ensued in the station, where the booking desk sergeant struggled to record the incomprehensible names of the French and Belgian prisoners.  The majority of the women were released on bail before nightfall, put up by the main landlords of the cribs, who shelled out nearly 4 thousand dollars for their return.  A few months after this bust, the crib district finally went dark when the police, clergy, the Salvation Army, and women crusaders allied to shut down the saloons that anchored the neighborhood.

Dance Hall Siren

In ancient times, the Greeks wrote of three beautiful Sirens – women who were part bird and part woman, and who lived only to seduce sailors with their haunting songs.Sailors who charted a course near islands inhabited by the Sirens were inevitably shipwrecked, their vessels smashed to bits on nearby rocky shores.

In modern times, Sirens were more likely to inhabit a bar stool than an island. The unlucky sailor who fell for a modern Siren may not have been literally dashed to bits, but he would suffer a similar symbolic fate – a broken heart.

Dominga Villa, a young sailor from the Philippines, first laid eyes on Emma Hanmore in a Main Street dance hall. Emma danced her way into Dominga’s affections, and then slipped a greedy hand into his wallet. The lovesick sailor lavished the dancer with gifts and cash until he was tapped out.“She broke me,” he said. “I love her. I give my life for her but she just fool me and then say bah, she not want me.”

After turning up unannounced at Emma’s apartment with the last of his cash, Dominga was crushed when he saw another man’s clothes draped over a chair. He demanded an explanation, apparently not realizing that what he’d bought and paid for was Emma’s time and the pretense of a relationship, not her love. Perhaps her secret heart wasn’t for sale, or maybe the man’s clothing in her apartment belonged to another in a long line of suckers.

Emma was able to divert Dominga’s attention from the mystery man’s clothes in her apartment by agreeing to meet him at the dance hall that evening.They later returned to Dominga’s hotel room, where Emma told him that she was finished with him.

Dominga was shattered — his love had been abused. Even worse, the woman didn’t show any remorse for having played him. In fact, she sardonically sang him a love song, and laughing, prepared to walk out of his life. Dominga later recalled “I went mad”, pulling out a pistol and gunning Emma down.He then turned the weapon on himself but was only injured, and lived to tell his story in court.